Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Last coins excavated from huge Jersey Celtic hoard

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Excavation of the enormous hoard of Celtic coins discovered by metal detectorists on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is finally complete. Comprised of almost 70,000 coins, multiple gold torcs, glass beads and organic materials including plant fibers, a leather bag and a bag woven with silver and gold thread, the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered, six times larger than the runner-up.

When Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard after 30 years of searching the same field because of a story they’d heard from the previous landowners daughter, they only dug down to the surface of the mass of coins before alerting Jersey Heritage so the professionals could take over the excavation. With such a great quantity of coins corroded together, archaeologists dug the entire hoard out of the ground in a single soil block measuring 4.5 x 2.6 feet and weighing three quarters of a ton.

The block was transported to the Jersey Museum where it was painstakingly excavated in the glass-walled laboratory in full public view. The museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer worked with a team of experts and volunteers to document, recover, identify and clean every single speck of archaeological material. For the first two years, they focused on removing and cleaning 2,000 loose coins on the surface of the block. In 2014 excavation of the coin mass began. The overwhelming majority of the coins were found to date to 30-50 B.C. and were made by the Coriosolite tribe of what is now Brittany.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the recovery of objects from the block during just one week, November 21-27, 2015.

Before a coin was removed from the block it was laser scanned so its exact position was recorded, and then once it was removed it was laser scanned on its own. One small subblock of coins was not excavated. Instead, it was snugly plastic wrapped and removed whole so that future conservators armed with new technologies have a clean, original section to study.

The scanning and removal of all the rest of the hoard took a lot of time. Four years after the find and almost three years after the excavation of the soil block began, Neil Mahrer scanned and removed the last ten coins of 70,000. Because the Jersey Museum team is composed of wise and provident people with a care for our nerdly needs, they had it filmed.

Neil Mahrer, who has led the conservation project from the beginning, said: “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way.

“There is still plenty to do and I am sure the hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”

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From the annals of there’s no accounting for taste

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, reopened in September of 2015 after a five-year renovation that fixed structural issues, redesigned all the galleries and storage facilities, updated the climate control systems and technology. The refurbished museum was a huge hit with critics and visitors alike, but people who visited before last October of who stuck to the exhibition galleries have missed a long-lost gem: a 3rd century mosaic floor from Antioch in the Loctite Lobby of the Aetna Theater that was hidden for decades under atrocious convention hall carpeting.

The 13-by-10 foot mosaic is composed of limestone and multicolored glass tiles. A white border with small black stepped diamonds surrounds panels of theatrical masks, male and female, comic and tragic, young and old. Deep cuboids in perspective outline the mask panels. What was once the central panel is now almost entirely gone. Only the bottom left corner depicting a pair of sandaled feet on a footstool survives.

It was discovered in Room 2 of a private dwelling known as the House of the Mysteries of Isis because two of the mosaics in the house show scenes from Isian ritual. It was excavated in the 1930s by an archaeological team led by Princeton University which excavated ancient Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey) from 1932 through 1939. As per the partage system which was customary at the time, the spoils of archaeological digs were divided among interested parties — involved institutions, financial supporters, local government. More than 300 mosaics and untold numbers of artifacts were unearthed during the seven years of Antioch excavations. Princeton’s share is now in the University Art Museum.

The Wadsworth was not one of the interested parties. The mosaic was purchased for $300 in 1940 by Atheneum director Chick Austin and was installed in the theater lobby. It had been raised in two sections back in the 1930s. When they were embedded in the terrazzo floor, the sections were put back together in a configuration that minimized gaps but paid no heed to the original logic and composition of the piece. Then, for reasons unknown and unfathomable today, the whole floor was covered in hideous wall-to-wall carpeting in the 1960s or 70s. Granted, those were dark days for interior decorating, but this seems extreme even for the era of avocado appliances.

“People knew it was there, but as the years went by it was less on everybody’s radar,” conservator Alan Kosanovich said.

Last October, the carpeting was pulled up “to give the lobby a fresher look,” he said. The mosaic and the terrazzo floor surrounding it were revealed. After Kosanovich cleaned and toned the piece, a railing was installed around it. Now, Atheneum visitors can see it, but not walk on it. [...]

The mosaic can be seen by all museum visitors, although those not going to a film screening or a live performance might not think to go to the basement theater to see it. It’s worth a trek down the stairs, to see an intriguing piece of ancient history, which sat ignored for decades under a common carpet.

Getting covered by hideous 1970s motel carpet isn’t the worst treatment received by an Antioch mosaic. In 1951 Princeton installed a small rectangular mosaic, once the border of a larger piece, raised during the university’s Antioch excavations in the vestibule of the Architecture Laboratory. Out in the open where an endless parade of students and faculty tramped on it daily and it was at the mercy of the vagaries of New Jersey weather for decades. You’d think an ancient mosaic literally at the threshold of an architecture lab would be handled with some basic level of competence, but you would be wrong. Every time some of the tesserae got loose, they just slapped a layer of cement on top.

Sixty years after it was installed, the mosaic finally got some attention. Conservators removed it in July 2011 and transported it to the Art Conservation Group’s Brooklyn studio for cleaning, consolidation and restoration. It was reinstalled, indoors this time, at the School of Architecture on March 19th, 2013. The removal and reinstallation was filmed, and it’s an interesting look not just as modern conservation methods, but also at how these mosaics were raised in the first place.

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Roman chariot model reveals trick of the racing trade

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

A study of a bronze model of a Roman racing chariot dating to the 1st-2nd c. A.D. has revealed new information on how the vehicles were built. The model, recovered from the Tiber in the 1890s, is now in the collection of the British Museum. It is a biga, a two-horse chariot, although one of the original horse figures is missing, as is the charioteer. The piece is a petite 10 inches long and eight inches high, but its significance is as oversized as the model is small.

While the remains of close to 300 ancient Etruscan and Italian war and ceremonial chariots have been discovered in funerary contexts, no racing chariots from Republican or Imperial Rome have ever been found. Written descriptions and visual representations are all we have to go on to understand how they were constructed. Most of the chariots depicted in monumental art are triumphal chariots which were used in solemn processionals and bore only a superficial resemblance (ie, number of wheels, long axle) to the racing chariot. Racing chariots are depicted in carved reliefs, frescoes and mosaics of circus race scenes.

The little Tiber model, with its precision details and proportions, is the greatest source of information we have about the Roman racing chariot. It was a luxury item, the kind of toy chariot that only the very wealthy could afford. (Nero was fond of toy chariots, according to Suetonius, although his were ivory.) The wheels, now fixed, turned on the axle so it could be vigorously vroom-vroomed by its owner. Its creator certainly knew a great deal about chariot construction.

It has a long, straight axle, small wheels to help keep the base stable around tight corners, a small body, low to the ground, just big enough to fit one man snugly. The yoke pole has a decorative ram’s head at the end of it. The front of the car wasn’t the solid, highly decorated panel reaching Charlton Heston’s armpits seen in big screen versions of Roman chariot races. The car was basically a frame, bent pieces of wood lashed together. The front had a piece of leather or fabric tied to the frame, while the floor was woven straps which provided a little much-needed springiness for the charioteer.

Close examination of the model in the new study found that the right wheel, and only the right wheel, had a thin iron rim surrounding the wood.

“The basic wheels were always of wood, animal hide glue, and rawhide strips (at critical joints) that tighten upon drying, like clamps,” explained author Bela Sandor, professor emeritus of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Any iron tire for racing would be a very thin strip of iron on the outside of the wooden rim, best when heat-shrunk on the wood, to consolidate the whole wheel.

Adding the strip of iron to the right wheel improved a charioteer’s chances of winning a race to roughly 80 percent, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. [...]

Since it was easier to guide the horses into left-turning bends, most races ran anti-clockwise. “Indeed, the right side tire works best in oval-shaped arenas if the turning is always leftward,” Sandor said.

Sandor explained that some of the Romans strengthened the right wheels only because all chariots leaned to the right and overloaded just the right wheels during the left turns. “This makes total sense to everybody who understands the dynamics of a turning vehicle. It’s a common sensation to people riding in a fast-turning vehicle; standing and lurching sideways in a turning bus is a good example,” Sandor said.

The right-side iron tire didn’t necessarily make the chariot move faster. Its job was reinforcement, to keep the wheel under highest pressure from collapse and thus prevent disaster on the track. The right wheel failed far more than the left so it needed the metallic boost. The left wheel didn’t need the added support and the additional weight of a second iron rim would have slowed down chariot enough to make a victory in the circus all but impossible.

“A racing chariot with an iron tire on the right wheel only was the best compromise in terms of safety, durability and winning probability,” Sandor said. “As the finest available representation of a Roman racing chariot, the Tiber model gives us a glimpse into the Romans’ probabilistic thinking for winning races and bets.”

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A Dutch girl at breakfast joins Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a Swiss-French artist of Huguenot extraction who is best known today for his very fine pastels. Trained as a miniaturist in Geneva and portrait painter in Paris, Liotard preferred medium was pastel on paper. They make up the overwhelming majority of his surviving work, 540 individual pieces, as opposed to only 30 oil-on-canvas paintings. In his time, Liotard was very much in demand as a portraitist and miniaturist. He travelled extensively through Europe, staying in Paris, Naples, Florence and Rome before going to Constantinople in 1738 where he lived for four years.

He returned from Constantinople with a great big bushy beard, a taste for Turkish dress and the crowned heads of Europe lining up for his services. He lived in Vienna from 1743 to 1745 where he made several portraits of the Empress Maria Theresa and her family. In 1748 he was in Paris painting King Louis XV and his family. In 1755 it was London and the Prince of Wales’ turn. His portraits were notoriously expensive, driving the bitter rival artist Andrea Soldi to grumble that the English measured “the value of his works by the length of his beard.”

After his London sojourn, Liotard went to Holland. He stayed for a year, studying the masters of the Dutch Golden Age and building a collection of more than 60 paintings from the period. He also found himself a wife: Marie Fargue, a Dutch Huguenot who posed in Turkish dress for one of his loveliest pastel portraits, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Liotard was strongly influenced by the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Even before his sojourn in Holland, his portraits were unusually restrained and naturalistic at a time when the fashion was for very stylized portraits with contrived poses, symbolic gestures and accoutrements conveying the wealth, power, profession and/or abilities of the subject. The intimate spaces, plain painted walls, varied textures and scenes from daily life captured in the works of Jan van Huysum, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Johannes Vermeer inspired Liotard.

With one small oil-on-canvas painting, A Dutch girl at breakfast, Liotard became one of the first non-Dutch 18th century artists to create an explicit homage to the Golden Age masters. The painting depicts a modestly attired young woman seated a tripod table pouring a beverage (both coffee and chocolate have been proposed) into a cup. She sits in a classically Dutch interior. There’s a simple wood armoire against the wall, a foot-warmer on the floor beside her chair and, just in case the reference wasn’t clear enough, there’s a 17th-century Dutch painting of a church on the wall.

One of less than three dozen Liotard oil paintings and one of the only genre paintings he did (he was well-known for genre treatments in pastel, but not in oil), A Dutch girl at breakfast is rare and of great art historical significance as an example of the spreading influence of Dutch Golden Age painters. Liotard kept the painting for close to 20 years. He finally sold it in 1774 at a Christie’s auction. The buyer was Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, an old friend and patron of Liotard who had traveled with him in 1738 and would go on to become his biggest supporter, buying more than 70 of his works over the decades.

A Dutch girl at breakfast stayed in the Ponsonby family for 242 years until it was sold at Sotheby’s in July 2016 for $5,695,000. The buyer was revealed last month as the Rijksmuseum which has now installed Liotard’s Dutch girl next to Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the Gallery of Honour. Inspiration and inspired will only briefly be side by side. By the end of the month, the painting will be installed in its permanent location, the 18th century arts gallery. There it will be reunited with a host of brothers and sisters, the museum’s extensive collection of Liotard pastels that were donated by descendants of his and Marie Fargue’s eldest son.

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Rare medieval Madonna that survived Reformation, Revolution goes home

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

One of very few English-made statues of Catholic iconography to survive the Reformation has been acquired by the British Museum and will return to its homeland after centuries abroad. The alabaster figure of Virgin and Child was made in England, likely in the Midlands area, by an unknown artist in around 1350-75. Alabaster was highly prized by carvers in the 14th century because of its translucent glow, ivory tones and a surface that welcomed painting and gilding. Cheaper and easier to carve than marble, gypsum alabaster was extensively quarried in the Midlands during the 14th and 15th centuries. During this period, Nottingham had an active and lucrative trade in small devotional statues and reliefs, buoyed by the rich supply of local raw materials.

How this statue survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction of icons of the Protestant Reformation is unknown.

Early religious royal injunctions issued by Henry VIII had merely called for objects of religious “idolatry” to be taken down, citing the words of the second commandment: “Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth.”

But a more severe injunction followed after the succession of his son, Edward VI, in 1547. It called for the clergy “to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition: so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.”

In the following months religious statues were smashed, while a few were hidden behind walls and under floorboards. Some had their eyes deliberately damaged or their heads lopped off.

All we know is that at some point after it was created, the Madonna and Child made its way to Saint Truiden Abbey, in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium. Founded in the 7th century by Saint Trudo, aka Saint Truiden, the monastery was an important site of pilgrimage for centuries during the Middle Ages. A deep-pocketed pilgrim could have bought the statue in England and gifted it to the abbey shortly after it was created. Or it could have been saved from destruction in the 16th century and smuggled out of the country.

It then survived another orgy of destruction: the French Revolution. French Revolutionary forces arrived at Saint Truiden in 1794. They looted and pillaged the abbey and church, setting the latter on fire. Everything of value was stripped and sold for cash, from the artworks to the building materials. Perhaps the statue survived by being sold.

It first appears on the historical record in Brussels in 1864 where it was exhibited and purchased by Austrian collector, Dr. Albert Figdor. After his death it was acquired by an anonymous European family who put it up for auction. That’s where it was spotted by the British Museum who arranged a sale through art dealers Sam Fogg with funding from the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Whatever traumas it has experienced, the statue is in incredible condition. It still retains some of its polychrome paint and gilding. Quite a signficant amount of red and gold still decorates Mary’s crown. Most of the visible wear is the result of devotion, not violence. The faces of both Mother and Child and foot of the Child are worn from centuries of kisses and caresses from pilgrims.

The statue is now on display in the British Museum’s medieval gallery next to the South Cerney head and foot. The head and one foot of Christ are all that remain of the wooden crucifix of All Hallows Church in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. They were found hidden behind the wall of the church’s nave in 1915. It seems it was secreted whole, a desperate attempt to save it from destruction, and then over the centuries most of the crucifix rotted away leaving only the head and foot. The placement illustrates the shared context of the still-beautiful Madonna and Child and the ruins of the crucifix.

3D model time! I enjoyed zooming in and searching for polychrome paint remnants.

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Latin city mythically founded by Aeneas opens to public

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

The ancient Latin city of Lavinium, according to legend founded by Aeneas, son of Venus, hero of Troy and ancestor of Julius Caesar, has some of the most significant archaeological remains predating the ascendance of Rome. Less than 20 miles from the modern city of Rome, the archaeological site was first excavated in the mid-1950s by Professor Ferdinando Castagnoli from the University of La Sapienza’s Topographical Institute. He and his archaeologist colleague Lucos Cozza unearthed a tumulus 60 feet in diameter richly furnished with more than 60 grave goods dating to the 7th century B.C., including a chariot, weapons, objects made of precious metals and vases for the funerary banquet. It was modified in the 4th century B.C.; a square room with a large tufa door was added. Research found that the Romans called this tumulus the Heroon of Aeneas (a heroon is a shrine dedicated to a hero, usually believed to be built over his tomb or to hold his relics).

Later excavations discovered what would become known as the Sanctuary of the XIII Altars, a cult center where 13 altars made of soft volcanic tufa were carefully lined up for religious rituals. A 14th altar was recently unearthed, and all appear to have been made between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists believe Lavinium was the main religious center of Latium at that time, and that the altars represent each of the important Latin cities. Excavations also unearthed an archaic temple to Minerva and two kilns used to make terracotta votive statuary.

Archaeological evidence indicates the town is very ancient indeed, going back to the 12th century B.C., the Bronze Age. It expanded in the 8th century B.C. and achieved its greatest size in the 6th century B.C. It began to decline in the 5th century, possibly after suffering damage in an earthquake, and by the 2nd century was no longer a religious center for the region having been eclipsed by its putative descendant, Rome.

The legend connecting Lavinium to Aeneas and the future capital of an empire only grew in prominence as the town itself shrank into a sleepy suburb of Rome. After years of exciting adventures, Aeneas landed in Latium where the gods and his dead father Anchises had told him he would found the greatest of all cities and sire the greatest of all lineages. Latinus, king of the Latins, welcomed Aeneas and offered him the hand of his daughter Lavinia in marriage. He accepted, married the princess and founded a new city which he named after her. His son Ascanius founded the town of Alba Longa where he and his descendants ruled for generation upon generation. The twins Romulus and Remus were born to one of those descendants, Rhea Silvia, courtesy of divine impregnation. Then there was the whole she-wolf thing and the fratricide and the Rape of the Sabine Women and voila! Rome.

The founding of ancient Rome traced to the heroes of Troy has come down to us from historian writing hundreds of years after the events they purported to describe. Early Greek historians proposed a bewildering combination of founding legends, the earliest of whom was Helanicus of Lesbos (5th century B.C.) who claimed Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself and named it after a Trojan woman. The oldest surviving source on the Lavinium version is Quintus Fabius Pictor, a third century B.C. senator from the patrician gens Fabia who is considered the first Roman historian, but all we have of his history of Rome are a few quotations and references cited by later writers including Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. The first book of Livy’s great compendium of all of Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), written between 27 and 9 B.C., recounts the story of Aeneas’ arrival in Latium, his marriage to Lavinia and his founding of Lavinium. By Livy’s time, this was the story that had stuck. Livy’s contemporary Virgil wrote about it in The Aeneid which sealed its popularity for 2,000 years.

Despite the endurance of the legend, the ancient city itself faded as the Western Empire fell apart. Around 1200, the walled medieval burg of Pratica di Mare was built over the remains of Lavinium’s ancient acropolis. It was owned by Benedictine monks until the 14th century when it passed into the hands of a succession of noble Roman families. The last of these was the Borghese family which took ownership of Practica di Mare in 1617. It is still their private property. They have an obligation to maintain the medieval town and any dispositions made regarding the archaeological site and the nature preserve that surrounds it must go through the Borgheses.

Because of this, it has been very difficult for people to get access to the ancient remains. On very rare occasions they would be open to the public, but otherwise arranging a visit to the altars or the heroon took a lot of jumping through behind-the-scenes hoops. In 2005, the Lavinium Archaeological Museum opened, giving tourists a chance to enjoy some of the archaeological treasures of Lavinium. It focuses on the legendary connection to Aeneas. Video installations tell the story of his eventful voyage after the fall of Troy and follow a virtual priest through the Sanctuary of the Altars. The terracotta statues made in the kilns are on display, as is an archaic statue of Minerva found at her temple and the tufa door from the Heroon of Aeneas.

Now a new agreement has been struck between the Commune of Pomezia, the Archaeological Superintendency for metropolitan Rome and the Borghese family to open the archaeological site of Lavinium to visitors. January 7th was the first day. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone in Rome or environs to see ancient Latin archaeology before the distinction between Rome and its neighbors was blurred by empire and expansion. You can’t find this kind of thing in Rome. Archaeology from the legendary days, even from the kings and early Republic, is all but non-existent.

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Will of 12th c. Georgian king on display for the 1st time

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, Georgia, has put on display the only surviving fragment of the last will and testament of the 12th century King of Georgia, David the Builder. The Georgia’s Medieval Treasury exhibition “showcases Georgian Christian art that reflected the unity and continuity of cultural traditions and formed the basis of the Georgian statehood and the national identity.” It opened in June but the objects on display are constantly changing and the will only went on display a week ago. It is the first time this priceless relic has been on public display.

David the Builder is Georgia’s greatest national hero. Just 16 years old when his father abdicated in his favor, David fought the Seljuk Turks for more than 20 years, chipping off territories under their control from 1101 until 1123 when he wrested their last stronghold of Dmanisi from them and unified the country. According to Arabic scholars like Badr al-Din al-Ayni, David the Builder respected other faiths, granted legal protection to Muslims and Jews living in the kingdom as well as adherents to minority Christian denominations like the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 1125, King David wrote a will and determined the orderly succession of his kingdom. He died on January 24th of that year. He was just 53 years old but had reigned for 36 years. His son Demetrius succeeded him. The Georgian Orthodox Church canonized him a saint for his dedication to the faith.

Together the reigns of David the Builder and his granddaughter Tamar (r. 1184–1213) are considered the Georgian Golden Age, a military, political and cultural Renaissance in the east hundreds of years before Western Europe got around to it. The Golden Age didn’t long outlive Queen Tamar. First the Mongol invasions of the 1230s and 40s broke Georgian independence, rendering it a vassal state. In the late 14th century Timur (Tamerlane) devastated the country and forced the king to pay tribute. By 1466, the Kingdom of Georgia no longer existed even in name only; it disintegrated into several small kingdoms and principalities. It was carved up some more by neighboring powers — Persia and the Ottoman Empire, then the Russian Empire which absorbed it in 1801.

Even after centuries without a functional Georgian state, Georgian cultural identity still held on strong and David the Builder was widely revered. On display along with the fragment of the will is a glass negative of the whole document made in 1895 by photographer and Georgian nationalist Alexander Roinashvili. He took numerous photographic portraits of prominent Georgian public figures and of important sites and objects of Georgian cultural heritage. So dedicated was he to sharing and promoting Georgian history that he conceived the idea of a mobile museum of Georgian antiquities that would feature both photographs and historical artifacts — weapons, silverware, coins — he’d collected for years. In 1887, Roinashvili finally got his museum off the ground and took it on tour. The museum never did travel as far and wide as Roinashvili had hoped, but it’s thanks to his unwavering committment to documenting Georgian culture that we have a copy of David the Builder’s will.

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Doodle found under Dutch Golden Age painting

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

The Choir of the Saint Bavo in Haarlem (1636) by Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter Jansz Saenredam is an architectural perspective of the interior of the Gothic church of Saint Bavo. Known as the portrait painter of Dutch churches, Saenredam’s specialty was capturing the complex geometries and soaring heights of church interiors to convey their light, stillness and grandeur. Saint Bavo was one of his favorite subjects. He made about 30 drawings and 12 paintings of the church.

Saenredam took a rigorously mathematical approach to his church portraits. He usually made at least two preparatory drawings, one a pencil sketch done freehand in the space to establish the composition, the other a detailed graphite rendition of the scene made with a straight-edge and compass using precise measurements taken of the church by a surveyor.

An exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., explores how the artists of the Dutch Golden Age employed drawing as part of their painting processes. The exhibition displays almost 100 drawings plus finished paintings by 17th century Dutch masters including Saenredam, Rembrandt van Rijn, Aelbert Cuyp and Jacob van Ruisdael. To prepare for the exhibition, Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, conservators at the NGA examined the paintings with infrared reflectography (IRR) which can reveal underdrawings made with black chalk against a white background. (Red or white chalk underdrawings cannot be detected with IRR.)

IRR revealed an unexpected surprise in the underdrawing of The Choir of the Saint Bavo in Haarlem: a doodle of a horse carrying four men on its back and a little stick figure in balloon pants underneath them. Drawn on the left pillar in the foreground, the whimsical figures are a marked contrast to the somber whitewashed interior of the post-iconoclasm church. There’s no way Saenredam intended to paint the doodle in the final version, so he must have just been having fun knowing he’d paint over it.

The drawing of four men on horseback is recognizable as a scene from a Charlemagne romance. The oldest extant version of the chanson de geste Quatre Fils Aymon was written in Old French in the 12th century. It recounts the legend of the four sons of Duke Aymon of Dordogne: the chivalric hero Renaud de Montauban and his brothers Guichard, Allard and Richardet. Aymon presents his sons to Charlemagne at a royal tournament with Renaud wins. For his bravery and skill in battle, Charlemagne awards Renaud a magic horse named Bayard. The gift comes in extra handy when Renaud kills one of Charlemagne’s nephews in a fight over a chess game and is forced to flee. Magical Bayard is so big he can carry all four brothers on his back. In the end, the hero Roland convinces Charlemagne to pardon the brothers which he does on condition that Renaud expiate his sins on Crusade.

The Four Sons of Aymon was immensely popular for hundreds of years. Prose versions began to be written in the 14th century in France and the story was translated in multiple languages. The earliest known English version was printed by William Caxton around 1489. The earliest surviving Dutch translation dates to 1508. In this version it’s Duke Aymon who gives Bayard to Renaud and Renaud kills Charlemagne’s son, not his nephew.

The image of Bayard carrying the four brothers on his back appears in art and sculpture, particularly in northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, from the 12th century through the 20th. Not in religious art, though, and certainly not on church pillars. The Bayard doodle conveys the playful side of an artist like Saenredam almost four centuries after he covered it up.

Monday is the last day of the exhibition, so if you’re in D.C. take a long lunch and pop over to the NGA to see the paintings, the IRR images and the related drawings before they move on to the Fondation Custodia in Paris. The rest of us can at least have a little fun sliding between the paintings and their underdrawings as revealed by IRR on the National Gallery of Art’s website.

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Tiffany’s glass mosaics get their own show

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, New York, will present the first exhibition dedicated to the intricate glass mosaics made by Louis Comfort Tiffany‘s glassworks. Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics combines works in the CMoG collection with ones from The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass and pieces loaned from other institutions and private collections. Almost 50 mosaics made from the 1890s through the 1920s will be displayed, from small decorative objects to massive installations made of thousands of glass tiles.

The exhibition will reveal the process of creating a mosaic at Tiffany’s studios—through detailed watercolor studies and drawings to surviving glass sample panels and examples of completed work. Museum visitors will gain insight into the labor-intensive processes, including the selection of individual pieces of glass, which played a vital role in the overall aesthetic of the final product. Drawing on The Neustadt’s archive of Tiffany glass, objects on display will also include original examples of colored sheet glass, glass “jewels,” and glass fragments made for specific mosaics.[...]

“Although Louis C. Tiffany is best known for his pioneering leaded glass windows and lamps, his mosaics are the culmination of his experimentation and artistry in glass,” said Lindsy Parrott, director and curator at The Neustadt and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “Indeed, the mosaics represent an exciting synthesis of his work in both leaded and blown glass. Using a rich variety of materials, including multicolored opalescent glass and shimmering iridescent glass, accented with three-dimensional glass ‘jewels,’ Tiffany’s innovations in glass established a bold new aesthetic for mosaics and contributed a uniquely American character to the centuries-old art form.”

The exhibition will also explore how Louis Comfort Tiffany used his showroom to market his portfolio to wealthy clients, driving up perceived value by letting buyers get a peek behind the curtain at how the wizards in Tiffany’s workshop made every piece by hand.

“Tiffany’s successful combination of art and business coincided with the rapid development of consumer culture in the United States,” said Kelly Conway, curator of American glass at CMoG and co-curator of Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics. “His impressive New York City showroom and clever, gorgeous displays of the company’s mosaics at world’s fairs, coupled with strategic marketing, sparked consumer interest and drove demand for high-priced luxury objects for the home.”

That was just the beginning of the Tiffany mosaic business, however. As the mosaic workshop became increasingly well-established at the end of the 19th century, religious and educational institutions commissioned Tiffany mosaics on a grand scale. While individual mosaics, mostly portable, have been on display before, this exhibition is the first to display the full breadth of Tiffany’s mosaic oeuvre. The museum has created custom digital displays that will allow visitors to explore the minute details of large-scale architectural mosaics in churches, libraries and universities that cannot be moved for exhibition. Mosaics at 12 different locations in New York State, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago have been photographed in high resolution by the CMoG team for the virtual displays.

Here is a magnificent example of that photography. It’s a mural in the Curtis Publishing Company Building in Philadelphia, a huge wonderland of glass tiles that looks completely different from a distance than it does up close, like one of those magic eye posters.

EDIT: Extremely relevant information I left out for some unknown reason is that the exhibition runs from May 20th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Calvatone Victory rediscovered at the Hermitage

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

An ancient Roman bronze statue lost since World War II has been rediscovered at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The gilded bronze statue of Nike, goddess of Victory, was created in the second century A.D. to commemorate the victory of co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus against the Parthians in the war of 161-166.

The Victory was found in four pieces: the body, torso, right hand and the sphere. The head was discovered first, churned up in February 1836 by farmers working the fields of a private estate near the town of Calvatone outside Cremona in Lombardy, northern Italy. The estate’s owner, Luigi Alovisi, was fascinated by the golden head and had people keep looking for more parts. On March 14th, 1836, they found the body, missing the left arm and leg, and a sphere with both of her dainty feet perched upon it. The inscription on the sphere — VICTORIAE AVG. / ANTONINI ET VERI / M. SATRIUS MAIOR — identified its age and that it was dedicated by local dignitary Marcus Satrius Maior to the emperors.

Italian restorers put the existing pieces back together, revealing a statue 170 cm (5’7″) in height. Even though it was incomplete, its size, quality and the elegant balancing of the winged Victory atop a sphere immediately classified it among the masterpieces of antiquity. Very few ancient bronzes survived melting down, and the Calvatone Victory not only managed to avoid the forge, it kept a large proportion of its gilding.

In December of 1841, Luigi Alovisi sold the Victory to King Frederick William IV of Prussia for 12,000 Austrian lire and a noble title. German restorers picked up where the Italian ones left off and all the statue’s missing parts — left arm, left leg, wings — were recreated and attached. Now complete, it became a favorite subject for artists to draw and sculptors to copy. A plaster cast of the sculpture was created in 1871 and another eight made after the turn of the century. Some of the copies are in museums in Berlin, Rome, Cremona and Moscow even today.

Up until 1939, the Calvatone Victory was on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Along with many other precious works, it was moved to the cellar of the new Royal Mint building for its protection when World War II broke out. It remained (relatively) safe there while its former home at the Altes Museum was destroyed by Allied bombs. It was in the chaotic aftermath of the Battle of Berlin in 1945 that the Victory disappeared, one of thousands of artifacts lost to looting by German Army deserters and Red Army troops.

Its whereabouts were unknown for the next 70 years. Recent research by Hermitage staff into declassified Soviet files and newly discovered documents found that the Victory was specifically targeted for removal from the mint cellar by a Russian expert in ancient art. The cellar had flooded in the waning days of the war, and the Calvatone Victory was one of many pieces stored there to suffer damage. Packed into one of 40,000 cases full of art, the Victory wasn’t assigned an inventory number. By the time it arrived at the Hermitage in 1946 and was entered into inventory there, its real identity was lost and it was mistakenly assessed to be a 17th century French sculpture.

The statue is not in great condition. The heavy gilded iron wings attached by the Berlin restorers in the 19th century fell off during its wartime service in the cellar, and there is evidence of damage from bombs and water.

Hermann Parzinger, the director of the SPK, and Michail Piotrowkij, the general director of the Hermitage, have agreed to collaborate on the sculpture’s restoration.

Parzinger thanked the Hermitage for its transparent handling of the research, and for a history of successful collaborations on exhibitions surrounding works displaced from German museums during World War II. “With the Victoria of Calvatone sculpture, our successful and mutually trusting scholarly collaboration has gained another milestone to mark.”

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